What do a wave, a restaurant and an Eskimo woman’s leather pants all have in common? It isn’t the setup for a groan-worthy joke, but rather the possible names of an iconic Finnish design. Alternately known as the Aalto Vase, Savoy Vase and Eskimåkvinnans skinnbyxa (say that 10 times fast—I’ll wait), Alvar Aalto’s 1936 glass vase stands out as a highlight of Scandinavian design. Though Finland is not technically part of Scandinavia, its language and culture does borrow from its nearby Nordic neighbors and demonstrates the streamlined, elegant and simple aesthetic valued by the Scandinavian design movement.
Alvar Aalto first sketched the vase to enter into a contest for the Karhula-Iittala glass company, and the design was added to a collection of items he and his wife Aina created for the Savoy restaurant in Helsinki. The prototype had a fascinating start, with Aalto blowing glass into a mold made from wood sticks stuck in mud, allowing the molten glass to escape the edges and become its signature wavy shape. It’s reported that Aalto was inspired by an Eskimo woman’s traditional costume (indeed, that’s the note on the bottom of his sketch), though his last name translates in Finnish to “wave” and has long been thought a rather fortunate coincidence.
“We should work for simple, good, undecorated things”
Whatever the inspiration or official name, there’s no doubt that Aalto was heavily influenced by organic shapes and fluidity in his work. A prolific architect, about 300 of his buildings were actually built, mostly in Finland. His career spanned many aesthetic movements, but his legacy is firmly rooted in Scandinavian modernism. As an artist and designer, Aalto was primarily interested in sculptural processes and experimental methods, many of which he translated from smaller works to building techniques. But he was also a champion of functional simplicity and accessibility, tenets that remain dear to Scandinavian aesthetes to this day, saying in a 1957 speech, “We should work for simple, good, undecorated things, but things which are in harmony with the human being and organically suited to the little man in the street.”
Back to the vase: The “little man in the street” was welcome to interpret this design as anything he wished, and to use it accordingly. Displayed as an ice bucket, planter, cut-flowers vessel or simply as an objet d’art on its own, the Aalto Vase has charmed and interested design enthusiasts for 80 years. Still manufactured by Iittala in Finland, each vase takes seven glassblowers and artisans a total of 30 hours to craft—so each vase is a truly unique piece of art. The original wooden mold (created when Aalto’s multi-layered steel mold design failed) was slowly burned away with use, which lends the legend an ephemeral quality that greatly enhances its organic aesthetic.
Leading up to the 80th anniversary of the iconic design (which the design celebrated in 2016), we’ve seen many iterations of the Aalto Vase in height, size and color. The newest shades celebrate the latest milestone in a stormy but steadfastly neutral dark grey and a vibrant emerald green, which is enjoying a moment in the sun in Pantone’s spring 2017 palette as well as being a timeless jewel tone that’s perennially in fashion. I’m not sure the same can be said for Eskimo breeches, but the Aalto Vase is poised never to go out of style.